Thursday Poem

At the Wailing Wall

I figure I have to come here with my kids,
though I’m always ill at ease in holy places—
the wars, for one thing—and it’s the substanceless
that sets me going: the holy words.
Though I do write a note – my girls’ sound future
(there’s an evil eye out there; you never know)
and then pick up a broken-backed siddur,
the first of many motions to go through.
Let’s get them over with. I hate this women’s section
almost as much as that one full of men
wrapped in tallises, eyes closed, showing off.
But here I am, reciting the amida anyway.
Surprising things can happen when you start to pray;
we’ll see if any angels call my bluff.

by Jaqueline Asherow

Robert Pinsky reviews ‘Save Room for Pie,’ by Roy Blount Jr.

In the New York Times:

9780374175207“Comedy is music,” Sid Caesar wrote in his autobiography. The great comic follows that crisp sentence with another nearly as brief, seven additional words for those who need an explanation: “It has a rhythm and a melody.”

An expert like Roy Blount Jr., as the old borscht belt masters might say, knows from rhythm and melody. His prose can sing in deft comic riffs, as when he is celebrating, criticizing or just chanting lore about food, the ostensible subject of his new book, “Save Room for Pie.” For example, about a memorable bit of street food he consumed in New Orleans: “I had a kimchi pancake with pork-belly hash that made me want to shout.”

In a less celebratory moment, here’s another example, a melodic turn making its discriminations about an important food of Blount’s native South: “ ‘I like grits,’ Chet Atkins used to say, ‘because they have no bones.’ I take his point. But instant grits — no. Too close to grit foam. You don’t want grits to grate, but however near fluffy they’ve been cooked down to, they should retain a gritty gist.”

More here.

A programming language for living cells

Anne Trafton in Phys.org:

ScreenHunter_1833 Apr. 06 17.44MIT biological engineers have created a programming language that allows them to rapidly design complex, DNA-encoded circuits that give new functions to living cells.

Using this language, anyone can write a program for the function they want, such as detecting and responding to certain . They can then generate a DNA sequence that will achieve it.

“It is literally a for bacteria,” says Christopher Voigt, an MIT professor of biological engineering. “You use a text-based language, just like you're programming a computer. Then you take that text and you compile it and it turns it into a DNA sequence that you put into the cell, and the circuit runs inside the cell.”

Voigt and colleagues at Boston University and the National Institute of Standards and Technology have used this language, which they describe in the April 1 issue of Science, to build circuits that can detect up to three inputs and respond in different ways. Future applications for this kind of programming include designing bacterial cells that can produce a cancer drug when they detect a tumor, or creating yeast cells that can halt their own fermentation process if too many build up.

More here.

Why Economic Elites Believe They Deserve More

Yanis Varoufakis in Evonomics:

Yanis-Varoufakis_avatar_1453418649-175x175The ‘haves’ of the world are always convinced that they deserve their wealth. That their gargantuan income reflects their ingenuity, ‘human capital’, the risks they (or their parents) took, their work ethic, their acumen, their application, their good luck even. The economists (especially members of the so-called Chicago School. e.g. Gary Becker) aid and abet the self-serving beliefs of the powerful by arguing that arbitrary discrimination in the distribution of wealth and social roles cannot survive for long the pressures of competition (i.e. that, sooner or later, people will be rewarded in proportion to their contribution to society). Most of the rest of us suspect that this is plainly false. That the distribution of power and wealth can be, and usually is, highly arbitrary and independent of ‘marginal productivity’, ‘risk taking’ or, indeed, any personal characteristic of those who rise to the top.

In this post I present a body of experimental work that argues the latter point: Arbitrary distributions of roles and wealth are not only sustainable in competitive environments but, indeed, they are unavoidable until and unless there are political interventions to keep them in check.

More here.

“Our sons will ask us what we did here”: an interrogator’s memories of Abu Ghraib

Eric Fair in Salon:

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One of the interrogation booths at Abu Ghraib has comfortable chairs. I like to use this booth because there's a small space heater inside that cuts through the chill of the Iraqi winter. There's even a hot plate to boil water for tea, but it only works when you run an extension cord from the generator, and that prevents you from closing the door all the way. I'm interrogating an Iraqi general today, so I make the tea. It's hard to schedule this booth because everyone wants to use it, and we're only supposed to use it when we have someone important to talk to. It's always a good thing if you're interrogating a former Iraqi army officer, especially a major or a colonel. And if you get a former general, like today, then the booth is yours for sure. The comfortable interrogation booth is designed for an approach called change of scenery. The prisoner is supposed to think he's somewhere else; he's supposed to be tricked into thinking he's just holding a normal conversation in an office building or his living room; he's supposed to forget he's being interrogated at Abu Ghraib prison. But it's still just a plywood interrogation booth that smells like fresh- cut lumber, and it's still surrounded by the mud and the filth and the incoming mortar rounds that mark Abu Ghraib.

It's early morning—the afternoon sun is still a few hours away—so when two U.S. Army soldiers deliver the general to the booth he is shivering from the cold. I haven't had time to read the screening report, so I don't know much about him, but I'm sure his story is similar to so many of the others I've already heard. He's Shia, which means he probably commanded some poorly trained army unit that probably had more men than rifles. And he probably couldn't pay his men because he embezzled the unit's payroll in order to fund the bribes that got him promoted to general in the first place. He probably deserted during the invasion, never wanted to fight U.S. troops, and just wanted to go home and live in an Iraq free of Saddam Hussein. This is what all the former generals tell us. None of us believe it. The report says something about the general's sons being involved in anti-Coalition activities, which doesn't make much sense because he's Shia, and it's January 2004 and the Shia haven't turned their guns on us yet. But it's hard to know what's true inside Abu Ghraib, and it's hard to make sense of anything going on in Iraq.

More here.

the most recent Revival of Isabel Bolton

BoltonAlice Lowe at The Millions:

In his 1946 New Yorker review of Do I Wake or Sleep, Edmund Wilson, one of the most prominent critics of his day, called Isabel Bolton’s voice “exquisitely perfect in accent.” He compared her stream-of-consciousness prose to Virginia Woolf’s, her technique to Henry James’s — “the single consciousness that observes all”– and the novel’s mood and sensibility to that of Elizabeth Bowen’s Death of the Heart. Diana Trilling at The Nation heaped on more accolades, regretting only that she hadn’t discovered Bolton first. Do I Wake or Sleep was “quite the best novel that has come my way in the four years I have been reviewing new fiction for this magazine,” and Bolton was “the most important new novelist in the English language to appear in years.” Trilling too compares Bolton to Bowen, noting “the same scalpel-like precision of observation and expression.”

Three years later The Christmas Tree was published. Two early excerpts had appeared in The New Yorker, priming fans of Bolton’s first novel for her encore. Trilling wasn’t disappointed. With The Christmas Tree, she wrote, Bolton “establishes herself as the best woman writer of fiction in this country today.” Other reviews were enthusiastic, but with qualifications. The Saturday Reviewfound “her talent, her exquisite sensitivity unmistakable,” her lyric prose “almost perfect” at times, but the second novel not equal to the first.

Bolton’s third novel, Many Mansions, was published in 1952 and was a finalist for that year’s National Book Award; yet reviews were mixed. Kirkus Reviews dismissed its “drawing room elegance and withered gentility.”

more here.

The Iran–Iraq War

41iy7B-o08L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_C P W Gammell at Literary Review:

The Iran–Iraq War ostensibly concerned sovereignty of the Shatt al-Arab, a stretch of water dividing the two nations. The Algiers Accord of 6 March 1975 allowed Saddam and the Shah of Iran to announce that they had put an end to their disagreements. The demarcation of terrestrial and fluvial borders resulted in the border running through the middle of the Shatt al-Arab, rather than along the Persian bank, which had served as the previous demarcation. For Saddam, the accord had been a humiliation and on 17 September 1980, after months of tension, he renounced it. On 22 September Iraq launched an air offensive, striking inside Iranian territory. The conflict continued, through phases of operations and different styles of warfare, only ending on 20 August 1988, after Iran accepted the UN Security Council’s Resolution 598. And yet, as Razoux shows, this conflict concerned more than a stretch of water separating Iran and Iraq. It covered everything from the Cold War to ancient Persian-Arab tensions to Islamic sectarianism and ethnic separatism.

One of the most fascinating insights this book offers is its illustration of the impact the conflict had on the Islamic Republic of Iran and how that nation moved from fledgling revolutionary state to an established Islamic theocracy. Razoux is right to argue that Iran’s real revolution occurred during the Iran–Iraq War; it was these years of bitter fighting against internal and external enemies that shaped the Iran we see today. The Revolutionary Guards, the Quds Force, the Basij and the clerical hierarchy – all these were created, strengthened or became ascendant during the conflict.

more here.

My John Berryman: A Poet of Deep Unease

Cole-My-John-Berryman-Poet-Unease-690Henri Cole at The New Yorker:

Berryman is a lyric poet, which means that his poems express intense personal emotion, and probably I am drawn to this because I am a lyric poet, too. To the ancient Greeks, anything lyrikos was considered appropriate for the lyre, the elegant stringed instrument that was highly regarded by them and played as an accompaniment to unarmored or personal poetry. I admire the private intensity of Berryman’s work, which records not only the depths of his own degradation but also love and ecstasy. When asked to define the most important elements of poetry, Berryman replied, “Imagination, love, intellect—and pain. Yes, you’ve got to know pain.” Of course, it is in part the pain of human voices (comical, sad, troubled, vulnerable, vehement, libidinous) that makes the dream songs still edgy and strange fifty years after they first appeared.

Some readers have wondered if these uncomfortable poems were the result of alcoholism, or of double doses of chlorpromazine (an antipsychotic) or Dilantin (an anticonvulsant), which had both been prescribed to Berryman. But I do not really care, since beneath the gruff surface and the high jinks of these poems we hear, deeper down, a vibrant, loving man with a vast spirit. Exacerbated and enormously learned, Berryman was a master of the poem written with manic energy from the edges of human experience. Now, a half-century later, the dream songs remain a delicious, horrible, grotesque, ridiculous, fragmentary, tortured, diary-like transcription of a life in which a man worked hard, got up early each day to work at his desk and assemble language into art, strived to love his young wife and children, taught his classes, lectured, wrote letters of recommendation, mentored his students, and fulfilled the obligations that come with being a lonely man of letters living in the Midwest.

more here.

In search of Ramanujan

Andrew Robinson in Nature:

Patel

The story of the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887–1920) is improbable. Self-taught, he made many seminal discoveries in number theory and power series — most famously concerning the partition of numbers into a sum of smaller integers — that continue to fascinate mathematicians and intrigue physicists studying black holes and quantum gravity. In The Man Who Knew Infinity, director Matthew Brown dramatizes the purest of mathematics for a general audience, and explores the strange personal life of Ramanujan, who died at 32, at the height of his powers, probably from tuberculosis. Based on the compelling biography of the same name by Robert Kanigel (Scribner, 1991), the film took more than ten years to create. It is worth the wait. Ramanujan's career was 'made' by British mathematician G. H. Hardy, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1913, while working as an accounts clerk in what is now Chennai, Ramanujan sent Hardy startling, entirely unproven, theorems out of the blue. “They must be true,” wrote Hardy, “because, if they were not true, no one would have the imagination to invent them.” Hardy lured Ramanujan to Cambridge, even though foreign travel was considered an offence against Hindu caste purity. They collaborated intensively throughout the First World War. Ramanujan had no university degree, but in 1918, Hardy ensured that he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society — the first Indian to receive the honour after it was restricted to scientists — and of Trinity College. They encountered considerable opposition, some of it racially motivated.

Hardy's relationship with Ramanujan holds the film together. Convincing performances by Jeremy Irons as Hardy and Dev Patel as Ramanujan were carefully refined by the film's Japanese–American mathematics adviser, Ken Ono, whose academic career has been dedicated to exploring Ramanujan's theorems. Irons and Patel animate both the consuming passion for mathematics shared by the two, and their astonishing lack of personal intimacy; Hardy, for instance, had only a faint idea of Ramanujan's growing depression, which led to a suicide attempt on the London Underground. Irons, however brilliant, is a generation older than Hardy was in 1914, and Patel is taller and nattier than the more corpulent Ramanujan, who was ill at ease in Western dress.

More here.

How did we end up here?

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Adam Shatz in the LRB:

In No Name in the Street, James Baldwin describes how, not long after he settled in France in 1948, he ‘had watched the police, one sunny afternoon, beat an old, one-armed Arab peanut vendor senseless in the streets, and I had watched the unconcerned faces of the French on the café terraces, and the congested faces of the Arabs.’ With a ‘generous smile’, Baldwin’s friends reassured him that he was different from the Arabs: ‘Le noir américain est très évolué, voyons!’ He found the response perplexing, given what he knew of French views about the United States, so he asked a ‘very cunning question’:

If so crude a nation as the United States could produce so gloriously civilised a creature as myself, how was it that the French, armed with centuries of civilised grace, had been unable to civilise the Arab?

The response was breathtakingly simple: ‘The Arabs did not wish to be civilised.’ They, the Arabs, had their own traditions, and ‘the Arab was always hiding something; you couldn’t guess what he was thinking and couldn’t trust what he was saying. And they had a different attitude toward women, they were very brutal with them, in a word they were rapists, and they stole, and they carried knives.’

Aside from ageing veterans of the French-Algerian war, no one in France talks about ‘the Arabs’ any longer. Instead they speak of ‘the Muslims’. But France’s Muslims are the descendants of that Arab peanut vendor – and, all too often, targets of the same racist intolerance. Like the racism Baldwin encountered among his Parisian friends, it often wears an ennobling mask: anti-terrorist, secular, feminist.

Charlie Hebdo’s recent editorial ‘How did we end up here?’ is a case in point. The terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels ‘are merely the visible part of a very large iceberg indeed,’ the cartoonist Laurent Sourisseau (‘Riss’) writes. The less visible parts of the ‘iceberg’ include the Swiss Muslim thinker Tariq Ramadan, who has been accused of speaking a ‘double language’, pretending to be a moderate but secretly lobbying for the imposition of sharia in Europe. To be sure, Riss jokes, he ‘is never going to grab a Kalashnikov with which to shoot journalists at an editorial meeting’, or ‘cook up a bomb to be used in an airport concourse. Others will be doing all that kind of stuff.’ And we shouldn’t forget the ‘veiled woman’ on the street, or the local baker who no longer makes sandwiches with ham or bacon. No terrorist attack ‘can really happen without everyone’s contribution’. Like the Arab in Baldwin’s time – or the Jew in an earlier era – the Muslim of today is ‘always hiding something’, either a terrorist plot or a plot to Islamicise France, or both. He preys on the bien pensant ‘dread of being treated as an Islamophobe or being called racist’.

More here.

The new astrology

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Alan Jay Levinovitz in Aeon:

The failure of the field [of economics] to predict the 2008 crisis has also been well-documented. In 2003, for example, only five years before the Great Recession, the Nobel Laureate Robert E Lucas Jr told the American Economic Association that ‘macroeconomics […] has succeeded: its central problem of depression prevention has been solved’. Short-term predictions fair little better – in April 2014, for instance, a survey of 67 economists yielded 100 per cent consensus: interest rates would rise over the next six months. Instead, they fell. A lot.

Nonetheless, surveys indicate that economists see their discipline as ‘the most scientific of the social sciences’. What is the basis of this collective faith, shared by universities, presidents and billionaires? Shouldn’t successful and powerful people be the first to spot the exaggerated worth of a discipline, and the least likely to pay for it?

In the hypothetical worlds of rational markets, where much of economic theory is set, perhaps. But real-world history tells a different story, of mathematical models masquerading as science and a public eager to buy them, mistaking elegant equations for empirical accuracy.

As an extreme example, take the extraordinary success of Evangeline Adams, a turn-of-the-20th-century astrologer whose clients included the president of Prudential Insurance, two presidents of the New York Stock Exchange, the steel magnate Charles M Schwab, and the banker J P Morgan. To understand why titans of finance would consult Adams about the market, it is essential to recall that astrology used to be a technical discipline, requiring reams of astronomical data and mastery of specialised mathematical formulas. ‘An astrologer’ is, in fact, the Oxford English Dictionary’s second definition of ‘mathematician’. For centuries, mapping stars was the job of mathematicians, a job motivated and funded by the widespread belief that star-maps were good guides to earthly affairs. The best astrology required the best astronomy, and the best astronomy was done by mathematicians – exactly the kind of person whose authority might appeal to bankers and financiers.

More here.

The Roots of Black Incarceration

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Joy James in Boston Review:

Austin Reed’s The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict is startling, instructive, and disquieting. Unearthed in a 2009 Rochester, New York, estate sale and acquired by Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book Library, it is a hitherto-unknown confessional by a “free” nineteenth-century black New Yorker who spent decades of his life imprisoned. Reed’s memoir introduces readers to the misdeeds and tragedies of a career criminal who began his misadventures before the age of ten and whose first major crime was to set fire to the house of the white man to whom he had been unwillingly indentured.

Reed worked on Haunted Convict intermittently during his long years of confinement, as well as during brief interludes of freedom. Never entirely finished or published—in fact, unknown in its day—it provides a perfect example of problematic encounters with black captivity: How to be enlightened without treating as entertainment the consumption of black suffering? A historical artifact, the book holds both archive and mirror for the present antagonisms about racism, policing, and mass incarceration, contributing to the ongoing exploration and debates concerning American democracy and racial identity built upon black captivity.

At the same time, Reed’s book in some ways vexes our desire for writing by nineteenth-century blacks to conform to the prevailing narrative arc of American slavery. Although Haunted Convict undoubtedly informs us about the critical period when American racially fashioned slavery began its mutation into the carceral state, Reed, for better or worse, is authentically his own person. His long imprisonment rendered him both a grief-stricken informant and political isolate. He completed his memoir in 1858, the same year that John Brown visited abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Rochester to propose the Harper’s Ferry slave insurrection (Douglass declined to participate). Yet Reed shows no awareness of the radical racial politics occurring in his hometown and dominating the era. Where we might wish that he would contextualize his narrative in relation to other nineteenth-century stories of slavery, he instead draws inspiration from what is most familiar to him: popular and populist tales of moral reform and his relationships with the white men who tormented or comforted him during his lengthy detentions and periodic escapes.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Lust

If only he could touch her,
Her name like an old wish
In the stopped weather of salt
On a snail. He longs to be

Words, juicy as passionfruit
On her tongue. He’d do anything,
Would dance three days & nights
To make the most terrible gods

Rise out of ashes of the yew,
To step from the naked
Fray, to be as tender
As meat imagined off

The bluegill’s pearlish
Bones. He longs to be
An orange, to feel fingernails
Run a seam through him.

by Yusef Komunyakaa
from Poetry, Vol. 175, No. 1, October/November
publisher: Poetry, Chicago, 1999

A Reductionist History of Humankind

51xwPegEzlL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_John Sexton at The New Atlantis:

The hardcover American edition of Sapiens weighs two and a half pounds — a little less than the average weight of a Homo sapiens brain. This is unusual for something that is neither a reference work nor a coffee-table book, and that runs to fewer than five hundred pages. The reason for such disproportionate heft is the quality of the paper: the pages are thick like those of a book of prints, crisp white and replete with color illustrations. At any time, but especially in the age of the e-book, such pages in a book with a mass run represent a considerable investment by the publisher. The biography of Harari on the inside jacket boasts that Sapiens has “already become an international bestseller” in, among other places, Slovenia, so the confidence of the publisher may well be justified. Certainly, Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to select Sapiens for his online book club devoted to “big ideas” won’t have hurt sales.

Books like this meet an appetite for sweeping history written in an accessible style and stressing the role of science and technology in shaping human destiny. Probably the best-known work in this genre is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997). Diamond endorses Sapiens on the cover and receives special thanks in the acknowledgments: Diamond “taught me to see the big picture,” Harari writes. But whereas Diamond stressed the role of climate and disease as well as technology in shaping human history, Harari makes the curious claim that it is only when humans have started making things up — imagining entities that do not objectively exist, like gods, ethical principles, and limited liability corporations — that we have made progress toward becoming a super species. Harari’s vision of history is therefore actually quite different from Diamond’s: while Diamond was really concerned with the influence of the external environment on human culture, or the power of matter over mind, for Harari, history is the story of the gradual triumph of mind over matter.

more here.